Germany is a nation of car enthusiasts. However, strict rules apply when driving in Germany and expats may be required to get a German driver’s license.
Germany comprises one of the highest numbers of registered car owners in the European Union, and is home to several of the world’s leading automobile enterprises. When driving in Germany, however, strict rules apply and it is important to be mindful of the road regulations and driving license rules before you drive in Germany.
Who can drive in Germany?
Everyone older than 18 years with a full driving license can drive a car in Germany. Therefore, if you are 17 or younger you will be unable to drive in Germany, even if you have previously been issued with a license in your home country.
Nationals from the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EU plus Iceland, Norway, and Lichtenstein) can continue to drive in Germany using their foreign driver’s license.
Everyone else can use their foreign driving license to drive in Germany for the first six months of residence but after this non-EU/EEA citizens will have to extend or exchange their license for a German license – and may need to take a written exam or driving test.
You can drive your own car in Germany for up to 12 months after which you will need to get it registered with the authorities in Germany.
Getting a German driving license
If you are a citizen of an EEA member country (EU plus Iceland, Norway and, Lichtenstein), you do not need to obtain a separate German license if you already hold a license for your home country.
Other foreigners permanently residing in Germany may use their own license accompanied by an international driving license initially, but should apply for a German driving license within six months of arriving in the country. The process for exchanging your current driver’s license for a German equivalent is determined by whether a reciprocal arrangement exists with the country that issued your existing license. For some countries, you may have to sit a written exam and/or a driving test, while for others the process is a fairly simple one of forwarding documents without the need to take any additional tests. The full process and conditions are outlined in Expatica’s guide to getting a German driver’s license.
Importing a car to Germany from abroad
You can import a car from outside the EU as part of your personal effects without paying any import duty or VAT (import turnover tax) if you can prove that you will be taking up full-time residence in Germany. For example, if you have a residence permit or a letter from an employer stating that you have been transferred to Germany. You must be the sole owner of the car and used by you at your address outside of Germany for at least six months previously. You must keep the car for a minimum of 12 months after importing it.
You can import a used car from within the EU without paying duty unless the car is less than six months old or has less than 6,000 miles on the clock in which case you will be asked to pay 19% import turnover tax. If you have already paid the VAT in your home country you can claim it back once you’ve registered the car in Germany.
You can use your own number plates and registration documents for up to 12 months so long as you have your registration document with a German translation and proof of insurance. The car may also be required to take a vehicle inspection. If you will be staying longer than 12 months, you will have to register the car with the local vehicle registry (Zulassungsstelle).
Car registration, taxes, and maintenance
Registration and motor inspection tests
To register your car in Germany, you must go through the local vehicle registry (Zulassungsstelle). You may be asked to provide:
- proof of official address registration in Germany
- customs clearance/export documents
- proof of ownership
- original registration papers
- proof of insurance.
The car must also pass the German vehicle inspection test – like the UK MOT – called the TÜV. The car may need to be modified to meet German standards.
You will have to continue to take the car for regular periodic technical inspections (PTI) and emissions tests. The date for the next PTI will be in your registration document and also on the inspection sticker. If you miss an inspection you’ll be fined. For more information on the inspections, see TÜV NORD and DEKRA
Road and car taxes in Germany
Motor vehicle tax (Kraftfahrzeugsteuer) in Germany is payable by the registered keeper of the motor vehicle and the tax liability begins from the time the vehicle is registered with the vehicle licensing authorities, and ending when the vehicle is de-registered. You pay the tax a year ahead via your local tax office (Finanzamt); you may be able to pay in installments for an additional fee. The amount of motor vehicle tax payable is worked out on the age of the car, engine size and its CO2 emissions. You can work out how much you will have to pay using the German Federal Ministry of Finance’s motor vehicle tax calculator.
There is currently no road tax in Germany and no tolls on Autobahns (motorways) but in 2016 the German government are planning to introduce a new road tax for drivers of foreign vehicles using the Autobahns. Drivers will have to pay by registering their license plates on the internet or at fuel stations; the tax will take into account engine size and environmental issues and will be up to EUR 130 per year.
General road rules in Germany
- In Germany drive on the right-hand side of the road.
- Keep these with you in the car: your passport/ID document (and those of your passengers), driving license, vehicle registration, insurance documents, TUV papers, warning triangle, high visibility vest, and a first-aid kit.
- Seatbelts are mandatory in Germany, as are child seats. Drivers are fined between €30–50 and may also get points on their license for not wearing them.
- Rights of way: A diamond-shaped sign with a yellow center means you have the right of way at an intersection. In built-up areas, if there’s no yellow diamond sign, you must give way to any cars coming out of a side road turning onto the right. All traffic lights also have such signs to show who has right of way should the lights go out, which seems to happen surprisingly frequently for a society that prides itself on order. You may only pass on the left and in practice, Germans do, in fact, only pass on the left.
- You can only drive into low-emissions zones if you have a badge/sticker showing that your car’s emissions are low enough. You can apply for an environmental badge here.
- It’s illegal to drive wearing headphones – use hands-free systems with phones.
- Winter/all-weather tires must be fitted in winter.
- You cannot have any devices to detect speed cameras in the car and if your satnav has this feature you must disable it.
Traffic offenses in Germany
Germany takes a tough line where traffic offenses are concerned with a focus on removing dangerous drivers from the roads. Relatively minor offenses incur fines of up to four points while more serious offenses will attract between five to seven points. Driving poorly while intoxicated will earn you seven points as well as the immediate loss of your driving license and potentially a large fine or a prison sentence. If it’s your first offense, your license will likely only be taken for three to six months. Fines are often based on your income, for example 120 days’ worth of pay.
Driving without a license will prevent you from holding a license for at least another six months, as well as incurring a fine of 180 days’ pay. Since you don’t technically have a license, you can’t accrue any points. If you just forget your license, you’re looking at a €10 warning.
In winter, if you have an accident and the car does not have winter tires on you will get a heavy fine and it’s unlikely that your insurance will cover you.
If you receive a traffic fine in Germany you can be asked to pay on the spot.
Speeding in Germany
Fines for speeding start at €15 for exceeding the speed limit by up to 10km/h in an urban area. If you go over 70km/h, you will be hit with a €680 fine, get four points on your license points and lose your license for three months. Going more than 25km/h over the speed limit in an urban area will get you up to a €80 fine and one point on your license. Anything over 30km/h the posted limit will land you with three to four points and a fine of at least €160. You’ll also lose your license for at least one month.
If you get caught speeding by a traffic camera you will not know it immediately but will receive a speeding ticket through the mail. Driving a hire car will not save you, as the rental car company will simply forward any tickets to your home address. Additionally, the police also set up speed traps, which may require you to pay a fine on the spot.
Drink-driving in Germany
In line with most EU states driving with alcohol in the system can result in severe penalties. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.5g of alcohol per liter of blood. Drivers can be punished for blood alcohol levels from 30mg per 100ml of blood, if the person’s driving is impaired. If low levels of alcohol are present but driving is unaffected punishment is not automatically required. In Germany, by law, a driver can be forced to submit to a blood test.
Germany is stricter on younger drivers and those on probation. If there is any alcohol present in drivers up to the age of 21 they will receive two points and a EUR 250 fine, regardless of whether driving is impaired. Where blood alcohol levels are higher than 50mg per 100ml, younger drivers or those in their probationary period will receive a EUR 500 fine, four points on their license and a one-month driving ban for a first offense. Subsequent offenses or where driving is impaired are punished even more severely.
Road signs and signals
Click to see a list of road traffic signs and signals in Germany.
General speed limits in Germany
Speed limits are 50km/h in cities and towns and 100km/h outside cities/towns on the so-called Landstrasse, unless otherwise marked. In certain areas, such as where schools are located, the speed limit is even lower – 30km/h.
There is no speed limit on the Autobahn, except in areas marked with signs for particular speeds. The German road authorities, however, recommend a top speed of 130km/h on the Autobahn. The fastest you can go on the highways within the city is 100km/h, and the unlimited speed limits don’t kick in on the Autobahn until you’re well outside the city.
Some urban areas are also marked as so-called Schrittempo zones, where you are expected to crawl along in first gear. When cruising through neighborhoods with no stop signs, cars to the right always have right of way.
Parking in Germany
Parking can be difficult to manage in the larger cities, particularly at busy periods such as the weekend when citizens often rely on-street parking. Always park in the same direction as traffic on one-way streets.
Neighborhoods often use metered parking. These are coin-based and machines mostly don’t accept plastic cards. The cost of metered parking varies considerably depending on the location but as a rule of thumb it costs from EUR 1 per hour to EUR 1 per half-hour.
Some parking areas use a Anwohnerparken or Anliegerfrei meaning residents’ parking; residents can usually obtain parking permits from the Einwohnermeldeamt.
You need a parking disk (Parkscheibe) in some parking areas; you can get disks from fuel stations. This is a double cardboard disc that shows the time you parked and which you display under your windshield. Places where parking is allowed but meters are not present are sometimes designated as parking with a Parkscheibe.
If you receive a parking fine you can expect to pay between €5–40. An anomaly of the rules is that you can sometimes be fined more for parking beyond an allotted period than for not buying a ticket at all (€10/€5).
Car rental and car sharing in Germany
Car rental companies in Germany usually require drivers are at least 21 years of age and have a full, valid license (with an accompanying translation/international driving permit if not in German). Most German car rentals have four or five gear manual transmissions rather than automatic, which means using a clutch and changing gears. If you are not used to this, you might want to rent an automatic car, which may be more expensive.
Buying a car in Germany
Buying a new or used car through a dealer means the dealer will usually handle the registration and insurance for you; if you buy privately you will have to organize these yourself. To get good deals, look for new cars that have become used cars after a day’s registration: Jahreswagen (employees of car manufacturers can buy new cars at discount and resell them after a year) and Vorführwagen (demo models). You can search for used cars in Germany on www.autoscout42.eu.
Road support and car insurance in Germany
Third-party insurance (Autohaftpflichtversicherung or Pflichtversicherung) is compulsory and you must carry the car insurance certificate in the car with you at all times. You can also choose to take out comprehensive (Kasko) insurance. If you have a good driving record back home get a letter confirming this to show a German insurer and get a discount. You can also read more about insurance in Germany in Expatica’s guide.
Breakdown and recovery
German motorways assistance can be called free of charge from emergency phones alongside the roads. If you’re involved in an accident call the police on 110 or call 112 for an ambulance. It’s illegal to leave the scene of an accident without getting help.
Click on the ViaMichelin website for traffic reports all over Germany.
- Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI): information on the validity of foreign driving licenses in Germany, road regulations, fines.
- TÜV NORD and DEKRA: organizations overseeing vehicle inspections.
- Fahrtipps: the German Highway Code (in German).
- ADAC (Allgemeine Deutsche Automobil-Club) and AvD (Automobil-Club von Deutschland): the two main automobile clubs in Germany.